Proceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences
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Warm fish with cold hearts: thermal plasticity of excitation–contraction coupling in bluefin tuna

    Bluefin tuna have a unique physiology. Elevated metabolic rates coupled with heat exchangers enable bluefin tunas to conserve heat in their locomotory muscle, viscera, eyes and brain, yet their hearts operate at ambient water temperature. This arrangement of a warm fish with a cold heart is unique among vertebrates and can result in a reduction in cardiac function in the cold despite the elevated metabolic demands of endothermic tissues. In this study, we used laser scanning confocal microscopy and electron microscopy to investigate how acute and chronic temperature change affects tuna cardiac function. We examined the temporal and spatial properties of the intracellular Ca2+ transient (Δ[Ca2+]i) in Pacific bluefin tuna (Thunnus orientalis) ventricular myocytes at the acclimation temperatures of 14°C and 24°C and at a common test temperature of 19°C. Acute (less than 5 min) warming and cooling accelerated and slowed the kinetics of Δ[Ca2+]i, indicating that temperature change limits cardiac myocyte performance. Importantly, we show that thermal acclimation offered partial compensation for these direct effects of temperature. Prolonged cold exposure (more than four weeks) increased the amplitude and kinetics of Δ[Ca2+]i by increasing intracellular Ca2+ cycling through the sarcoplasmic reticulum (SR). These functional findings are supported by electron microscopy, which revealed a greater volume fraction of ventricular SR in cold-acclimated tuna myocytes. The results indicate that SR function is crucial to the performance of the bluefin tuna heart in the cold. We suggest that SR Ca2+ cycling is the malleable unit of cellular Ca2+ flux, offering a mechanism for thermal plasticity in fish hearts. These findings have implications beyond endothermic fish and may help to delineate the key steps required to protect vertebrate cardiac function in the cold.


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